Printed: November 25, 2020

2 accused in 2017 rare book theft to be sentenced

BY PAULA REED WARD PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

During the first hour that rare book senior appraiser and adviser Kerry-lee Jeffery was in the Oliver Room at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in April 2017 to do an audit of the rare books kept there, she said, her stomach dropped.

She and her colleagues were looking for “The History of the Indian Tribes of North America,” by McKenney and Hall — an iconic, plump set wrapped in three-quarter morocco, or goatskin.

What she found was a book whose sides were caving in on themselves.

“Without even handling it, we knew something was wrong,” Ms. Jeffery wrote in a letter to Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Alexander P. Bicket. “Taking it down and opening it carefully on the table revealed that it was merely a carcass: boards and spine and a few pages of text. The plates had been brutishly cut from the book, leaving only stubs.”

Ms. Jeffery’s is one of 30 letters submitted by the prosecution to the court in aid of sentencing Thursday for the two men accused of stealing and cannibalizing more than $8 million worth of rare books, maps and plates over 25 years.

The letters — from patrons, volunteers, former employees, trustees and staff — almost universally ask that the two defendants, Gregory Priore and John Schulman, go to prison and decry not just the financial impact of the crime, but the erosion of trust it caused in the library system itself.

It doesn’t matter that the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh was insured by Traveler’s Insurance, and has received, to date, $6.57 million paid in three separate installments.

“The library will need to work to build its reputation and standing within the community and gain the trust of collectors and patrons,” wrote the appraisal group, Pall Mall Art Advisors. “The long-term effect is actually far greater than the value they may have lost in the tangible assets.”

Mr. Priore, 63, who served as the sole archivist and manager of the the library’s rare book room, pleaded guilty to theft and receiving stolen property in January. He admitted he removed items — prosecutors allege a total of 300 were found to be missing — and then sold them to Mr. Schulman, the owner of the popular Oakland book store, Caliban Book Shop.

Mr. Schulman, 56, who police said would then sell the stolen items to collectors both online and in his store, pleaded guilty on the same day to receiving stolen property, theft by deception and forgery.

At the plea hearing in January, the prosecution withdrew all other counts against them, including criminal conspiracy.

Although the number of missing items was 300, the prosecution wrote, the parties’ plea agreement holds them liable for 19 items that were recovered during the investigation and returned to the library.

The value of those items, according to Pall Mall, is just over $2 million.

The advisory guidelines for a first-degree felony call for a sentencing range of 9 to 16 months incarceration, and the prosecution is urging prison time for both men.

In asking for an aggravated sentence, Deputy District Attorney Brian Catanzarite wrote, “The scope, breadth and impact of the crimes perpetrated by John Schulman and Gregory Priore cannot be overstated.

“The devastating financial loss to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh pales in comparison to the irreparable damage that the defendants caused the community.”

But the defendants argued in sentencing memoranda filed with the court Thursday that they should not serve any time.

Mr. Priore asks to be allowed to complete community service with a nonprofit organization in Hazelwood to feed those in need.

“Respectfully, the most effective way to correct or adjust a non-violent public harm is to create a space for meaningful public good. A sentence of incarceration does not serve the best interests of the library, the community or Greg,” attorney Patrick Livingston wrote. “Recognizing that he has a significant debt to repay to society, Greg has embarked on an in-depth spiritual quest that has led him to reconnect with his Catholic faith.”

Mr. Schulman’s attorney, Ember Holmes, argues that he’s already been punished enough.

“Mr. Schulman built his entire career within the rare and antiquated book industry, and deeply regrets that he has undermined this career and violated the trust of his colleagues and the public,” Ms. Holmes wrote. “However, we would also request that this honorable court take into consideration the consequences that Mr. Schulman has already suffered as a result of his actions. He has lost the respect of many of his peers, and has been repeatedly humiliated in the media and on the internet.”

‘Greed came over me’

According to the prosecution, as long as 25 years ago, the two men reached an agreement in which Mr. Priore would remove items from the Oliver Room, which contained 30,000 unique and valuable items, and give them to Mr. Schulman to sell. In return, Mr. Schulman paid him.

In 2017, Pall Mall Art conducted an audit on the library’s rare book room that led to the discovery of the missing items.

When questioned by library staff, Mr. Priore denied involvement. But when investigators arrived at his house to do a search on Aug. 24, 2017, Mr. Priore admitted that he would remove individual plates — illustrated pages — from books, as well as maps, put them in manila folders and walk out of the library. Larger items, he said, he would roll up, and books he simply carried out.

Mr. Priore estimated to police he removed as many as 200 maps and pictures and told detectives that “I should have never done this. I loved that room my whole working life, and greed came over me.

“I did it, but Schulman spurred me on.”

When investigators searched the Caliban Book Shop Warehouse in Wilkinsburg over a nine-day period that summer, they recovered 42 of the missing items.

According to the initial criminal complaint, bank records showed Mr. Pirore received 56 checks from Caliban Book Shop from Jan. 1, 2010, through Sept. 1, 2017, totaling $117,000. There were also cash deposits of $17,000.

But Mr. Priore told investigators that Mr. Schulman earned much more money than he did.

Mr. Priore began working at the library in 1985 and was moved to the rare books room about six years later.

At that time, his attorney wrote, the collections in the room were “badly neglected, damaged, worn and, indeed, filthy.”

“It does not minimize Mr. Priore’s enduring remorse or his acknowledgment of accountability to stress that the economic values of the collections were substantially diminished before he was even assigned as their custodian,” Mr. Livingston wrote.

Mr. Priore’s sentencing memorandum quotes extensively from a 1991 audit of the library’s rare books collection completed by Schoyer’s Books in Squirrel Hill.

The appraisers wrote that “‘most of the books now in the [then-] Wadsworth Room were on open shelves in a non-environmentally controlled environment during an era of heavy pollution. Many of the books were among the dirtiest that we have handled.’”

Both Mr. Priore and Mr. Schulman in their sentencing briefs challenge the estimated value of loss presented by Pall Mall and prosecutors.

Still, Mr. Livingston wrote — and submitted letters from Mr. Priore’s wife and four children to emphasize — that his client has remorse for what he did, and that his motivation was “to stay afloat,” as he was “bearing a financial burden greater than he could afford,” in paying for private school and college.

He added that Mr. Priore has never lived “ostentatiously or pretentiously.”

Voices of support

In their filing, Mr. Schulman’s attorneys outline their client’s background — growing up in Pittsburgh and becoming interested in antiquarian books in high school, where he began collecting and selling rare books for spending money. Mr. Schulman graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1987, where he studied English and German, and earned a master’s in education there in 1990. He taught at Pitt until 1995.

Mr. Schulman opened Caliban books in 1991, his attorney said, and grew it into one of the most beloved bookstores in Pittsburgh, at the same time building his own national and international reputation in the field of rare and collectible books.

He joined the Antiquarian Book Sellers Association of American in the early 1990s and eventually served as the chair of its internet and ethics and standards committees.

Mr. Schulman also did appraisals of collections for the PBS program “Antiques Roadshow.”

Accompanying Mr. Schulman’s court filing were nine letters of support from the community. Among them is a letter from retired Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. — whose daughter has been best friends with Mr. Schulman’s wife since kindergarten — as well as letters from customers and fellow booksellers.

“His current legal troubles are incomprehensible to me because, over our 35-year association, I have never known him to be anything but a generous, considerate and caring man who does not in the least resemble the criminal portrayed by his accusers and by the national media,” wrote Gregory Gibson, of Ten Pound Island Book Company.

Mr. Schulman’s attorneys noted in their sentencing memorandum that their client did not plead guilty to any involvement in a conspiracy with Mr. Priore.

“Therefore, any reference to any theft from the Carnegie Library is irrelevant and immaterial to Mr. Schulman’s matter, and we would request that any such reference not be considered in fashioning Mr. Schulman’s sentence.”

Additionally, they told Judge Bicket that traditional incarceration is not necessary — whether to protect the community, achieve rehabilitation or deter future crimes. Mr. Priore has already paid $162,488.27 in restitution.

‘I had to sit down’

As part of the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum, Mr. Catanzarite argued that the defendants betrayed “their professions, their colleagues, the antiquarian book community, the patrons of [the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh] and Caliban and the citizens of Allegheny County.”

He urges Judge Bicket to order the men to prison — a sentence in the aggravated range — commensurate with the impact of the crime.

The court filing also noted that Mr. Schulman has not assisted the government in trying to recover the stolen items. But it also goes on to say that Mr. Priore, wrongly, wants the court to believe that he was simply a pawn to Mr. Schulman’s scheme.

Jacalyn Mignogna, the coordinator of conservation, preservation and access at the library, worked alongside the rare book appraisers in the room that became the crime scene.

“[O]n the day of discovery, after opening volume upon volume and realizing that the once beautiful engraved plates printed on gilt-edges leaves or sepia photographs were now neatly cut out and removed, I had to sit down. I felt ill,” she wrote. “I went back to my office and wept.

“No longer could anyone be overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of these magnificent books.”

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com